Pennsylvania court again backs limits on abortion coverage
HARRISBURG — Planned Parenthood and other operators of abortion clinics lost in court on Friday in their bid to reverse a decades-old Pennsylvania court decision upholding limits on the use of state Medicaid dollars to cover the cost of abortions.
The plaintiffs will appeal to the state Supreme Court, the only state court that can repeal the limits on abortion coverage under Medicaid, said Susan Frietsche of the Women's Law Project. The loss in the lower Commonwealth Court was expected, she said.
A seven-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court ruled, with one dissent, both that the abortion clinic operators do not have standing to assert the constitutional rights of low-income women seeking an abortion and that it is bound by the high court’s 1985 decision in question.
The state Supreme Court in 1985 upheld the 1982 law, which bans the use of state dollars for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, supports abortion rights, but his administration nevertheless fought the case, as did Republican lawmakers who intervened. Wolf's office declined comment, saying it was still reviewing the decision.
In a statement, House Republican leaders, who oppose abortion rights, praised the court “for making the right decision and not taking an action to rewrite existing law.”
They also called the ruling “a victory for all pro-life Pennsylvanians.”
The Women’s Law Project said that a deeply disturbing aspect of the ruling is the conclusion that abortion providers do not have standing to sue.
That ruling on standing defies established precedent in state and federal law going back decades, to even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that established a nationwide right to abortion, the Women’s Law Project said.
“In other words, the court asserted that pregnant patients must be the ones to go to court,” the Women’s Law Project said.
The lawsuit, filed in 2019, is asking courts to order the state’s Medicaid program to begin covering abortions, without restriction, and contends that a 1982 Pennsylvania law that restricts it violates the constitutional equal protection rights of low-income women.
The abortion clinic operators say denying Medicaid coverage of an abortion makes it unconstitutionally more difficult for a poorer woman to afford an abortion and — since Medicaid also covers transportation to medical appointments — the cost of travel to reach an abortion clinic.
The restriction also hurts the clinics because it forces them to subsidize the service and to divert money and staff from other services to help women enrolled in Medicaid who don't have the money to pay for an abortion, they say.
Staff must also ask probing questions of a patient, such as whether the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, they say.
Pennsylvania’s law is nearly identical to federal limits on the use of federal Medicaid dollars.
Sixteen other states allow public dollars to cover abortions beyond those exceptions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a policy and research organization that supports abortion rights.
The plaintiffs are Allegheny Reproductive Health Center, Allentown Women’s Center, Delaware County Women’s Center, Philadelphia Women’s Center, Planned Parenthood Keystone, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania.
In 1985, as now, the state Supreme Court had a Democratic majority. However, at that time, the entire seven-member high court was all men. Now, it has three women on it.
The court’s 1985 ruling found that the state had a legitimate “interest in preserving potential life” by limiting Medicaid’s coverage of abortions and was not interfering with a woman’s right to an abortion.
It also rejected the argument that the limits violated a constitution provision protecting equal rights on the basis of sex, saying that “there are certain laws which necessarily will only affect one sex.”